Usually when I’m asked what my favorite Christmas movie is, I answer “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I watch it every year and I never tire of it. But there’s another movie that I also have watched every year since it came out in 2005: Thomas Bezucha’s “The Family Stone.”
The movie opens with Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney), the oldest son of the family, Christmas shopping with his girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker). We immediately can tell that Meredith is a successful career woman, tightly wound, controlling, and a perfectionist. She’s also very nervous about going home with Everett to have Christmas with his family. When she steps out of the car in her high heels and slips in the snow, it’s the signal for how things are going to go: in her anxiety to do the right thing, Meredith puts her foot wrong with just about every step she takes; trying too hard to please, she only annoys or offends people.
Sybil, Everett’s mom (Diane Keaton) is dealing with a recurrence of breast cancer and, like many in her situation, has no more energy for being polite and saying things she doesn’t mean. She takes against Meredith at first sight and makes her dislike clear, but later confesses to her husband that it’s not Meredith herself that she dislikes; she knows that Meredith and Everett are not right for each other. Both are the oldest children in their families; both are driven and uptight; as a couple they only reinforce each other’s fear of not being perfect.
This is a romantic comedy, so the solution is close to hand in the persons of Everett’s brother Ben (Luke Wilson) and Meredith’s sister Julie (Claire Danes), who joins the group after a desperate Meredith calls her for support. Ben is an easy-going film editor, “the free spirit of the family,” says Bezrucha, and he sees something in Meredith that no one else does. After the mid-film crisis when Meredith manages to upset pretty much everyone and only makes it worse the more she tries to make it better, Ben hauls her off to the local pub and nods and nods as she rants about how misunderstood she is. Julie works for a nonprofit arts organization that supports native artists; Everett starts to fall for her when they go searching for Meredith and she tells him a story about a Native Alaska carver who “had a hole in his heart” until he was able, with funding from her organization, to carve a totem pole for his tribe.
Perfectionists have a hole in their hearts too. They don’t believe they are good enough as they are; they believe they can only be loved if they never display a flaw–and if they ever do, people will turn away from them, just as the Stone family seems to turn away from Meredith. Both Meredith and Everett need to be seen by someone who looks with the eye of the artist, not to criticize but to appreciate. They cannot do this for each other; they have not learned how yet.
The Japanese have a concept called wabi-sabi, the ability to appreciate that which is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete” as enhancing, not detracting from, a thing’s beauty. The artistic Ben urges Meredith to let go of her fears and just breathe and be herself. As Everett walks with Julie and listens to her, he realizes that this is how Julie sees the world, and begins to hope that she might see him that way too.
In the climactic scene, Meredith slips again, on an egg dish she has carefully prepared for the family and then managed to spill on the kitchen floor. But she’s not alone this time. Amy, Sybil, Everett, and Ben are there and also slip and fall. Everyone’s on the same level now, literally with egg on their faces, and all they can do is laugh–together.